For years, startups have resisted going public; avoiding IPOs. At the same time, merger and acquisition (M&A) activity is at an all-time high. We’re taking a look at why startups are increasingly taking the M&A exit route over listing publicly, and why it’s a good thing (for fintech, anyway).
IPOs down, M&A up
According to Quartz, the average age of publicly listed companies in the U.S. has increased from 12 years old to 20 years old since 1997. During that same time period, the number of American firms publicly listed in the U.S. shrank from 7,500 to 3,618. Echoing those findings, the Harvard Business Review reports that the number of publicly listed companies has declined by almost 50% since 1996, when the number peaked.
On the Finovate blog, we’ve covered 17 M&A deals so far this year. Compare that to last year, when we covered 46 merger and acquisition deals; and 2017, when we covered 29 mergers and acquisitions; and 2016’s total of 26. In the same vein, KPMG reports that the number of global M&A deals in fintech soared to more than 120 in the first quarter of 2018, totaling $22 billion. This is due primarily to consolidation of key segments. Large exits so far this year include TSYS and IDology — with eToro, InComm, Envestnet, and SumUp all having made major acquisitions.
Why not IPO?
Here are a few reasons why becoming acquired is more appetizing than going public:
- There’s no shortage of VC funding (yet)
- A grow-fast-and-get-acquired strategy is easier than a strategy to IPO, which requires long-term profitability planning
- Mergers and acquisitions are less costly than IPOs; underwriting and registration costs for IPOs add up to an average of 14% of the funds raised
- IPOs have a bad track record. The public markets have been tough environments for OnDeck and Lending Club, which both went public in 2014.
- IPOs are time consuming– taking anywhere from six to nine months to complete– and can take management’s focus away from business operations until the IPO is finalized.
Fintech hold outs
There are plenty of fintechs that would make good IPO candidates who are waiting to go public. Many of these companies have been in the industry for a decade or longer, and some have valuations upwards of $1 billion.
Take personal finance company SoFi, for example, a San Francisco-based company that’s valued at $4.3 billion. In February, CEO Anthony Noto told Barron’s that the company isn’t planning an IPO for this year, though Noto said that the company’s long-term goal is to go public. This comes after former CEO Michael Cagney said the company would likely go public in 2018 or 2019.
Founded in 2009, Atlanta-based Kabbage has been an alternative source of small business financing for almost 10 years. In an interview with Inc., Kathryn Petralia, Kabbage co-founder and president said, “An IPO is a huge distraction. It’s not just any fundraising event, it’s a really, really complicated transparent fundraising event that brings with it a lot of extra work– forever.” Regarding potential timing on taking Kabbage public, Petralia said, “There’s going to be a time for that, I suspect. But right now… it just doesn’t make sense.”
And in an interview with TechCrunch last year, Betterment CEO Jon Stein told the interviewer that going public is “something that we want to ultimately do.” He added, “we continue to drive towards it, and I believe we’re in a great position. We’re audited, we have an amazing finance team, we’ve got great risk management, security processes… all of those things that companies that are preparing to IPO ought to be doing.”
Good for fintech
So why is the M&A exit route beneficial over an IPO for the fintech industry? First, it keeps the fintech company loyal to its acquirer instead of shareholders. By focusing on an acquiring firm’s or bank’s bottom line instead of its own, fintechs are contributing to the bigger picture of banking.
Additionally, M&As tend to stimulate collaborative projects that benefit both financial services clients as well as end customers. Ultimately, working with tangential players in the market helps foster innovation.